In praise of Major League Soccer's late-season rush
Many serious soccer fans — some of whom prefer to be called football fans — insist that to become one of the world's elite leagues, Major League Soccer should jettison some of its distinctly American characteristics.
These arguments often center on how to reward excellence and punish failure: Adopt a promotion-relegation system. Do away with conferences in favor of single-table standings. Bestow the championship on the winner of the regular season, forgoing playoffs altogether.
Some goofier MLS innovations, such as the countdown clock (at the expense of stoppage time) and the hockey-style shootout (at the expense of ties), are now rightfully extinct. But the league should never scrap its postseason.
The main argument against playoffs is that they render the regular season irrelevant by allowing middling squads to squeak in, briefly catch fire and hoist the MLS Cup. Yet rather than rob the regular season of significance, the mad rush to nab one of 12 postseason berths always infuses autumn with high drama.
Without a postseason, Toronto FC would be easing toward a championship with six weeks remaining. Instead, they'll likely win the Supporters' Shield (awarded for the best regular-season record) while more than a dozen other clubs scramble for a playoff spot.
The promise of the postseason redeemed Crew SC's inaugural 1996 season, when they languished in last place all summer only to rally their way to the playoffs at season's end. And with Columbus in contention this year, a playoff race is juicing up what has otherwise been an average 2017.
Heading into Saturday's match at Vancouver, Columbus is fourth in the Eastern Conference, capable of finishing as high as second or not cracking the postseason at all. They've been hovering in playoff position all summer, but because they'd played more games than anyone else in MLS, most competitors could feasibly catch up.
Now that clubs are cashing in those games in hand, the tension is rising and the margin of error is slimming. A home draw versus Sporting KC last Sunday was useful for Columbus, but more helpful was Chicago, Montreal and both New York teams failing to win.
Crew SC can't count on rivals to falter indefinitely; to extend their run they'll have to deliver some late-season wins. Without playoffs, those games would be meaningless and Columbus would be out of contention. Instead, with five matches remaining, Crew SC's homestretch is about to get very exciting.